What membership really means for publishers

With advertising revenues declining, publishers are seeking loyal audiences and repeatable, predictable revenues. Membership models could be the way forward but, writes Carolyn Morgan, it does require a change in publisher mindset.

By Carolyn Morgan

What membership really means for publishers

The conversation is subtly shifting from pure subscription offers to developing membership packages, but many media businesses haven’t really worked out what makes membership different and what they need to change about their proposition. I suspect that some are just looking enviously at successful membership organisations and hoping to replicate this without a deep understanding. My aim in this article is to unpick what makes membership propositions work, and explore how publishers can evolve their business to build greater loyalty.

Why move to a membership model?

The appeal of a membership model to publishers is the stronger affinity that customers have with the business, resulting in higher loyalty and more predictable revenues.

A closer association with customers as “members” should make it easier to understand their needs, and anticipate change, effectively future proofing content and services.

As the business of publishing moves away from a set of defined content-driven products to become more of a mix of services, including live events, advice lines and consultancy, then this more personal, tailored proposition suits the description of ‘membership’.

Plus, part of the value of membership organisations is the ability to connect with other members with similar interests, either in person or online, forging new connections and fostering a sense of belonging to a community.

What publishers can learn from membership organisations

The most important distinction between customers, readers or subscribers and members is that members feel a sense of ownership, and that they have a right to be involved and have the chance to influence and shape “their” organisation.

The IET is a professional association of 170,000 engineers and technicians, and encourages members to set up regional groups around the UK and internationally. A central team at IET supports local members groups in organising regional networking and speaker events and also collates their feedback on all the services, content and events that IET creates.

All staff in the PPA events team have conversations with members all year round to identify their needs and evolve new events. They are well aware that the face to face connections between members are a crucial part of the value they provide.

Membership organisations have structures such as advisory groups, regular surveys, forums, which positively encourage their members to shape the future of the products and services they provide. Adopting this approach could prove quite a cultural change for commercial publishers, as they adjust to greater “democracy”.

So, what is involved in moving from a subscription to a membership model? I believe there are seven key changes to make:

1. Inviting your audience in to shape the business

Many media organisations are already involving their audience directly in the future direction of the main products and services.

Briefing Media has a policy of creating advisory boards for conferences, encouraging them to identify hot topics, propose and introduce speakers, and shape the programme.

Bauer’s Fleet and Transport division runs a separate visitor steering group and sponsor steering group for their live events, to ensure that each event continues to develop to meet the needs of both constituencies.

The expansion of digital products among publishers has introduced many to the principles of agile development with its focus on user groups, phased development, and continually evolving features in response to user feedback.

HSJ Intelligence invited customers as build partners into the development process, asking them to review the product every couple of weeks.

So, the difference between simple audience research and full customer engagement is that customers / members can actively affect the development of the product. This means that editorial and marketing teams have to step back, cede some control, and learn to adapt to the priorities of their audience.

2. Engaging members via live events

Live, in-person events are still the best way to build stronger relationships with a membership group, and encourage them to connect with each other.

PPA believes that events are an essential part of the value they provide to their members, with small scale, discussion-based events as important as large-scale conferences.

Publishers who are evolving from a subscription model to more of a membership proposition are now offering smaller, more intimate events as part of the membership package – providing networking, and exclusive access to key speakers and influencers. For example, niche B2B media start-up, Business of Fashion, includes a series of networking events in its pro membership packages.

Live events also provide an opportunity to talk in depth to your audience. For example, Procurement Leaders run special small group sessions at their summits to share new research with their members and investigate how they want services to develop.

Econsultancy have run Digital Cream for their members, an event built around small group discussions on hot topics. Since their membership is increasingly international, they have also established regular digital events, with two webinar series for members only: Digital Shift, a one-hour webinar on latest trends with Q&A, and Therapy Thursday, with panel discussions on a specific pain point or challenge.

3. Building a network of expert contributors

In consumer specialist markets, readers are frequently experts in the subject; while in B2B markets, they are practitioners or senior professionals. Smart publishers offer readers opportunities to contribute content, comment, or ask questions, or even speak at conferences. Over time, this can build up to a network of expert contributors adding valuable content to the media brand.

Nature has created an online community, BioPharma Dealmakers, which allows members to pay extra for the rights to publish content and have it featured onsite and in newsletters.

TES has built up a vast library of teaching resources contributed by its members and available for other members to download and use, partly for free, and some for a nominal cost, which then goes back to the original creator.

4. Offering training and professional development

Professional membership organisations have historically been involved in providing training and continuous professional development, and accreditation has frequently been the original reason for joining, with events and content providing added value.

Commercial B2B publishers moving to more of a membership model are developing a range of in-person and online courses, enhancing professional skills and offering networking benefits as well.

Nursing Times has developed an e-learning portal for nurses, which is effectively competing with the membership body RCN.

Econsultancy built a large part of its business on offering training courses in digital marketing.

5. Managing dynamic between members and non-members

Commercial publishers who provide some content for free, and are perhaps migrating from a pure subscription proposition towards a membership model, will need to consider how they clarify the proposition for members and non-members.

Procurement Leaders encourage non-members to pay to attend their large scale conferences, and showcase the proprietary research and insights available to members at the event.

6. Using analytics to identify prospective members

The shift to digital content and individual logins means that publishers can now use data to track the respective online behaviour of members and non-members, and start to identify the triggers to conversion to full membership.

The FT has a long established and very sophisticated data and analytics team. Their focus is principally on converting registered users to paying subscribers, and they have identified the behaviour patterns that show that someone is likely to be receptive to a subscription offer. This approach could work equally well spotting non-members who might be interested in full membership.

7. Evolving a membership mindset

So, shifting from a subscription to a membership proposition requires a much more significant change than just adding a few exclusive events and updating your marketing copy.

To really build that deeper engagement and loyalty, publishers have to learn from membership organisations and start involving members fully in evolving new content and digital product development. This goes beyond arm’s length research and means regular communications, setting up advisory groups, and allowing members to shape the development of products and services.

Inviting readers to contribute ideas and content builds a stronger connection, whether that is through articles, tips, reviews, live Q&As at events or online discussions.

It’s important not just to talk to the core loyalists, but also engage with light users and prospective members, to expand your reach.

But be aware that a strong focus on member engagement and influence means a mindset change for editors and marketers: they will have to hand over some control over the direction of events, content and services.

So, there is real value for publishers in developing a membership model, in terms of greater loyalty and more predictable revenues. But it certainly pays to analyse what makes existing membership organisations succeed. And editorial and marketing teams will have to make the cultural adjustment of allowing members to have a real say in how products and services develop.